As far as historian Stephen Ambrose is concerned, the verdict is unequivocal: "Saving Private Ryan" is the greatest war film ever made. Not simply from an artistic perspective, although Ambrose has nothing but praise for the artistry of director Steven Spielberg. Not simply because Tom Hanks' portrayal of the enigmatic Capt. Miller is as good as it gets.
"Saving Private Ryan" is the greatest because it rings the truest, says Ambrose, who served as a consultant on the movie and accompanied Spielberg and Hanks on a trip to Washington last week. Hired after filming was completed, he was the first person to view the completed film. Given veto power by Spielberg over any scene he found objectionable, Ambrose saw no reason to use it.
To make his point, he compares "Saving Private Ryan" to "The Longest Day," a labor of love from producer Darryl F. Zanuck that, since its release in 1962, has stood as the film depiction of the Normandy invasion.
"In Spielberg's film, you see things that never ever happened in a Zanuck film," says Ambrose, whose writings were a key source of inspiration for Spielberg and his crew. "Zanuck did a lot of things right; that song, you come out of the theater whistling, it's just terrific. His pan shots, of the scope of the invasion, are marvelous.
"But his combat is a joke. You have almost no sound of battle and what little there is fades away whenever John Wayne or all the other famous actors has something to say.
Zanuck wasn't going to pay them all those big bucks and then not let people hear them. In this film, you're leaning forward and you still miss half of what Hanks is saying.
"In Zanuck's film," Ambrose continues, "when a G.I. gets hit, it's either an insignificant wound and the guy goes, 'Sarge, I'm all right,' or he's dead, he catches it between the eyes or in the heart and the C.O. can write home to the grieving parents or the widow, 'He never knew what hit him, he didn't suffer.' Which is very nice. Except that it almost never happens that way.
"What happens is, they darn well know what hit them, and they surely do suffer, they suffer terribly. They suffer excruciating pain and panic and terror, and they're watching themselves die and they can't do anything about it, and nobody can do anything about it."
Ambrose isn't sure how the public will react to such a harrowingly realistic depiction of battle. But there's one thing he is sure about.
"In 1964-'65, we sent young men off to Vietnam with images of John Wayne in their minds. The next time we send young men off to war, they're going to have images of Tom Hanks in mind, and they're going to have a much better idea of [what combat is]. There is not an experience like combat. It is not glorious; it is not romantic."
Pub Date: 7/31/98